Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Wrongful Convictions in Illinois
Police Planting Evidence
False Confessions From Police Torture
"Marquette Park Four"
Federal Oversight of Chicago Police Department
In November 2015, a videotape was released showing former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke emptying his 9mm clip of 16 bullets in a span of 14-15 seconds into the lifeless body of 17-year old black teenager Laquan McDonald ("Laquan McDonald"). Van Dyke had 20 previously filed citizen complaints on him (he was never disciplined for any of them): 10 for excessive use of force, including two with the use of a gun and one for using a racial slur (Castillejo). A black Chicago man was awarded $350,000 after a federal jury found Van Dyke used excessive force on him during a July 9, 2007, traffic stop (McLaughlin). The videotape of Laquan McDonald's murder at the hands of Van Dyke caused protests and unrest in Chicago, which prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to ask the Justice Department to investigate the Chicago Police Department's (CPD) violation of the United States Constitution and federal civil rights law ("Chicago Police"). On December 7, 2015, United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch launched an investigation into the CPD's use of force against racial and ethnic minorities as well as into its procedures for accountability ("Chicago Police"). As part of the investigation, the department spoke with city leaders, past and current police officials, and many officers of different ranks throughout the CPD ("Justice Department"). Investigators from the Justice Department rode along with CPD officers in their patrol cars in every police district more than 60 times; spoke with over 1,000 residents and more than 90 local organizations; analyzed over 1,000 pages of police documents, including documents related to training, policies, and procedures; reviewed use of force reports from January 2011-April 2016, including reports concerning over 170 police shootings and over 400 use of force incidents ("Justice Department").
On January 13, 2017, the Justice Department found reasonable cause that the CPD exhibited a pattern of using force and deadly force in a manner that violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The systematic behavior stemmed from a continuous lack of training, supervision, and accountability, including the lack of training in deescalation and not properly investigating, disciplining, or reporting use of force complaints. Additionally, the department made it clear that racially bias police behavior was pervasive throughout the CPD. This racist behavior was tolerated in the CPD and in some ways caused by weaknesses in the CPD's procedures for training, overseeing, and holding police officers accountable. The department went on to state that black and Latino communities were most heavily impacted by the CPD's pattern of unreasonable use of force. In order to reform the CPD, the Justice Department recommended the City of Chicago sign a consent decree, which is a federal court-enforceable plan establishing reform and federal oversight ("Justice Department").
In Spring 2017, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department under the Trump administration would not intervene in local and state police matters ("Chicago Police"). The Justice Department refused to enter into a consent decree with the City of Chicago to reform the CPD ("Chicago Police"). In August 2017, Illinois Attorney General Madigan sued the City of Chicago to obtain a consent decree that would implement the recommendations of the Justice Department ("Chicago Police"). The Illinois Attorney General's Office and the City of Chicago came together and agreed that a consent decree was necessary to reform the CPD and rebuild the trust of the citizens of Chicago ("Chicago Police"). Under the guidance of Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. and Independent Federal Monitor Maggie Hickey, the consent decree went into effect on March 1, 2019: It requires the CPD to publicize use of force data every month, it bans police officers from using tasers on fleeing suspects, it requires officers to document each time they pull out their weapons, it changes the procedures for investigating officers, and it mandates the city to strengthen its support for police officer wellness programs ("Chicago Police"; Corley). On November 15, 2019, Federal Monitor Hickey released her first report on the CPD's progress in implementing the reforms of the consent decree: The report stated the CPD had not complied with most of the reforms and had failed to meet 37 of 50 mutually agreed upon deadlines to be in "preliminary compliance" (Schutz and Masterson). Although the City of Chicago is currently under a consent decree, Illinois must take further action to prevent wrongful convictions in Cook County and in other counties throughout the state.
Four Solutions to Prevent Wrongful Convictions
I. Body Cameras
II. Public Defender Police Station Units
III. Elected, Independent Civilian Oversight Committees
The Illinois General Assembly has to establish and maintain entirely elected, independent civilian oversight committees tasked with monitoring, investigating, and disciplining wrongdoing of members of police departments and state's attorney's offices across the state. A finding by a committee that a police officer or prosecutor engaged in official misconduct by violating his or her oath of office should automatically initiate a criminal prosecution by a special prosecutor.
A. Elected Civilian Oversight Committees of Police Departments
Elected, independent civilian oversight of police departments is crucial in holding police officers accountable for their actions. Typically, when a complaint is filed against a police officer, the officer's police department is the only entity investigating the complaint. A police department cannot be trusted to properly and impartially investigate a complaint against one of its own. Time and time again, police departments conduct internal investigations of wrongdoing of their officers and ultimately conclude the officer acted appropriately no matter how egregious his or her actions. Even when police departments do find wrongdoing by their officers, the punishment is often a "slap on the wrist." This occurs if police departments actually allow citizens to file complaints in the first place. Although citizens have a right to file complaints against police officers, it is not uncommon for police officers to turn citizens away from police departments or intimidate them into leaving without filing a complaint. Elected, independent civilian oversight committees of police departments must be created to protect the rights of Illinois citizens.
Although Chicago has a Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) that was created in 2016 to oversee misconduct by the Chicago Police Department, its members and leaders are appointed by the mayor, not elected by the people (Masterson). As a result, COPA has been criticized for not holding police officers accountable for their actions (Mitchell). In fact, in 2019, nine Chicago aldermen were calling for an investigation of COPA because it "internalized bias in favor of protecting Chicago police officers who [were] accused of misconduct" (Mitchell). The aldermen questioned both the "effectiveness and leadership" of COPA Chief Administrator Sydney Roberts (Mitchell). Roberts was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Mitchell). She spent most of her career in law enforcement and also served as Director of the Illinois Secretary of State Department of Police (Mitchell). Someone with a career in law enforcement who was appointed by a mayor, cannot be trusted as chief administrator of a police oversight committee to effectively discipline police officers accused of wrongdoing. Illinois must create independent civilian oversight committees whose leaders and members are fully elected by the people, not appointed by the mayor.
B. Elected Civilian Oversight Committees of State's Attorney's Offices
"The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous . . . While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst" - former U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson ("An Epidemic"). In the criminal justice system, prosecutors are the gatekeepers of justice. They have sole and unfettered discretion to decide whether or not to prosecute a crime and what crime to charge. They take oaths to essentially protect victims' rights and the rights of the accused. Prosecutors are forbidden from engaging in underhanded tactics to secure a conviction. They have a duty to uphold the Constitution and stand for justice—not a duty to convict. Although many prosecutors are honest and ethical, a great number of prosecutors are overzealous in charging and convicting defendants of crimes regardless of guilt to portray themselves as "tough on crime" or sadly because they simply want a "W" under their belts to advance their careers. In some cases, prosecutors mishandle or deliberately destroy evidence, knowingly use fabricated evidence against innocent defendants, withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, allow witnesses they know or should know are lying to testify, pressure defense witnesses not to testify, overcharge defendants, exaggerate the strength of evidence in plea negotiations, make inflammatory or improper statements to the media and juries, and refuse to report known prosecutorial misconduct ("An Epidemic").
On other occasions, prosecutors are accused of working with law enforcement to seize the assets of innocent people while threatening them with prosecution of a crime to essentially extort them into not challenging the seizure of their assets in exchange for not being prosecuted. In fact, law enforcement agencies seize more than $30 million a year from Illinoisans under state law and more than $36 million a year under federal law (Ruddell and Green). Assets seized under state law are used to fund state's attorney's offices and law enforcement agencies across the state (Ruddell and Green). These seizures have an inordinate effect on poor and minority communities (Ruddell). Those who contest the taking of their assets are often criminally prosecuted. In other instances, prosecutors are accused of pursuing convictions against defendants in retaliation for civil lawsuits filed against them or simply because they have biases against particular defendants. Although both police officers and prosecutors have immunity from civil lawsuits, police officers are occasionally prosecuted for their illegal misconduct, prosecutors, on the other hand, are rarely ever prosecuted. As a result, they consider themselves "untouchable." Elected, independent civilian oversight committees that have the power to discipline and initiate criminal prosecutions against prosecutors would help rein in their abusive practices.
IV. Funding of Exoneration Organizations